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Balancing Diet With Alternative Proteins Can Cut Deaths By 5% And Emissions By 25%

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Meeting the world’s growing demand for protein nutrition through sources of protein other than meat could prevent millions of unnecessary deaths per year and drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to new research conducted by the Oxford Martin School for the World Economic Forum. The research, published in the report Alternative Proteins also finds that the nutritional needs for a future world population of 10 billion can be met sustainably, and with positive health consequences, through a combination of innovative protein sources, improved production systems and changed consumer behaviour.

The report is unique in its focus on both the human health and environmental impacts of meat consumption. For human health, the research finds that switching from beef – the base case of the analysis – to other protein sources could reduce the overall global burden of diet-related deaths by 2.4%, with that number climbing to 5% in high- and upper-middle-income countries. This will be increasingly important given the projected demand for meat from emerging middle classes.  

At the same time, in terms of environmental impact, 2010 data shows that production of beef alone was responsible for 25% of all food-related greenhouse gas emissions. With demand for protein set to soar, such demand will place huge pressure on the environment. The report finds a striking difference between the greenhouse gas emissions of beef production and other sources of protein. While beef, for example, has an emissions intensity of 23.9 kilograms of CO2 equivalent per 200kcal, beans, insects, wheat and nuts emit 1 kilogram or less CO2 equivalent for the same nutritional value. Other sources such as tofu, pork, alga and chicken produce only 3-6 kilograms CO2 equivalent.

The 13 sources of protein analysed in the report include beef, pork and chicken; fruits and vegetables that can be eaten naturally or processed, such as beans and peas; processed non-animal substitutes such as tofu, wheat-gluten products or mycoprotein; and novel products such as culture meat, insects and alga spirulina.

“It will be impossible to sustainably satisfy the world’s future demand for meat. What this report shows is that it can be possible to produce enough nutrition for 10 billion people and improve people’s health without necessarily giving up meat – even red meat – altogether, through innovation in products, improvements in how we produce beef, pork and chicken, and an effort on the part of the consumer to embrace a more diverse diet,” said Dominic Waughray, Managing Director, World Economic Forum.

While the data highlights the positive joint health and environmental benefits of alternative proteins, it also details the scale of the challenge in building a more sustainable food system. On the technical side, for example, while lab-grown beef is seen by many as a much more environmentally friendly alternative to traditionally-reared beef, the report finds that current production methods are energy intensive. The report notes the possibility of changing this trajectory: as production processes mature and production is scaled up, leveraging renewable energy sourcing and localizing production in cities (much like craft beer is today), the environmental benefits of lab-grown meat could be enhanced significantly.

As important as the technical (and corresponding financial) side of innovation is, a positive story around alternative proteins is also needed to change political thinking. With each of these elements in place, we could be in line for a true transformation. The report calls for transformation in four sectors:

  • The food industry, which is called on to invest in new alternative proteins to help scale up production and offer consumers a wider range of options
  • The livestock industry, which must work with others (including government) to develop incentives for farmers to adopt more sustainable production processes
  • The feedstock industry, where production must shift towards creating inputs for alternative proteins (alongside creating more sustainable feedstock)
  • Government and regulators, which must design rules to govern a wave of new alternative proteins to protect the public from health risks and unsubstantiated claims, and to support the various sectors in their transformations

Supporting farmers

Another important message in the report is that alternative protein is only one part of the solution to make food production more sustainable and human lives healthier. For instance, the report also calls for animal feed innovation, such as insects, which present a critical opportunity, particularly for farmers in Europe and North America.

According to a sister analysis prepared by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) for the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2019, Options for the Livestock Sector in Developing and Emerging Economies to 2030 and Beyond, another key part of the protein story is smallholder farmers. This report highlights that 75% of all livestock-derived foods in Asia and 72% in Africa in 2010 were produced by small farms. These farmers live and work in very different circumstances. For instance, there were approximately 750 million rural poor livestock keepers living on less than $2 income per day in South Asia, East Asia and Pacific and Sub-Saharan Africa. With 70% or more of their total production costs going to labour and input costs, unique methods of sustainable intensification will be required. Ensuring that farmers can improve their livelihood and better manage their environmental impact of the livestock they keep will be a key factor in achieving a sustainable food system.

“Today, we have a unique opportunity to build the right food system for generations to come. The path towards this goal is at the crossroads between an ambitious transformation of traditional production to achieve sustainable growth, and strong support for alternatives and disruptive solutions. As a 167-year-old company with entrepreneurship at the heart of our values, our Group is committed to play an active role in this challenge, leading and supporting initiatives to collectively ensure that we can sustainably feed a growing world population,” Ian McIntosh, Chief Executive Officer, Louis Dreyfus Company.

“Meat production as currently practiced globally is unsustainable at the projected levels of growth, and as such will require new approaches to reduce environmental impact and will require a shift to more sustainable diets. Maple Leaf is committed to supporting consumer desire for more choices in their protein diet with plant protein-based foods providing an exciting path to both business and environmental value creation. In addition, we are equally committed to addressing the reconstruction of current meat production systems to ensure they fall in line with a sustainable future. We are moving at tremendous speed to bring innovation, scale and accessibility to provide consumers with a range of sustainable protein options,” said Michael McCain, President and Chief Executive Officer, Maple Leaf Foods.

The Forum’s Meat: the Future Initiative

The provision of universally accessible, safe, healthy and sustainable protein in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals is a pressing issue that cuts across systemic challenges, such as consumption, the environment, food security, health and trade issues. It also offers a great opportunity to harness innovations in technology and science that the World Economic Forum has termed the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Meat: the Future was launched in early 2018 by the World Economic Forum to help accelerate the agenda for change – and to stimulate new ideas and collaborations – working with leading economic policy, environment and food security experts, business leaders, civil society, investors and technology innovators from around the world. The initiative focuses on three pathways for change to the protein system: accelerating alternative proteins, advancing current production systems and driving consumer behaviour change.


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